Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

"Uncivil Obedience, Disobedience, and Civil Initiative"

by , Design Opus

This quotation is the title of an essay in Jim Corbett’s book Goatwalking, in which he compares the political theory of Thomas Hobbes and Henry David Thoreau to the philosophy and practice of civil initiative that he developed over a decade of human rights struggle. I’ve just written a short article about civil initiative over on the Design Opus journal, and I wanted to mention it here because Corbett’s thinking seems distinctly free liberal.

To illustrate, take my grossly oversimplified summaries of Hobbes, Thoreau, and Corbett:

  • Hobbes: Human life without states is nasty, brutish, and short. If we concede to protection by the Leviathan, we are it’s subjects, and must obey its commands. It’s kind of like Cthulhu. Sorry, but that’s the social contract. If you want to renegotiate, your only recourse is revolution.
  • Thoreau: The individual’s sole duty is to conscience, not government commands. States are too often the agents of injustice, and their laws are an obstacle to justice. Questions of right can’t be resolved by democratic legislation, but only by conscientious individuals, who must choose between respect for law and respect for right. When conscience conflicts with law, your options are conscientious disengagement or revolutionary disobedience.
  • Corbett: The common law is formed not by states, but by communities through the exercise of natural rights. Sometimes one must choose between obeying the law and obeying the government—not because the law is an obstacle to justice, but because the government is shattering the legal order by violating human rights. When communities must violate government statutes to protect human rights, their actions must be germane to victims’ needs and accountable to legal order.

For Hobbes, the fulcrum of social change and civil order is the benign, legitimate sovereign. Thoreau’s fulcrum is the individual conscience. For Corbett, liberty and community are interdependent primaries: masterless communities form the basis for accountability to legal order, which is defined by the protection of natural rights. Naturally ornery, I find Thoreau’s individualism appealing, but I agree with Corbett that only a community can integrate, outreach, and outlast individual acts of conscience.

In what kinds of activism have you been involved?

Different kinds of activism divulge their constituting principles. Lobbying recognizes the sovereignty of states in making law. Conscientious disengagement and revolutionary disobedience repudiate human law in favor of individual conscience. Civil initiative refuses either to forfeit legal order or to plead guilty for resisting government statutes that violate human rights.

I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. I welcome you to read about civil initiative, and leave your questions and comments.


John Stephens is a Quaker illustrator and web developer.
John Stephens is a Quaker, designer, and web architect in Virginia. You can find him at Design Opus. You should follow @johnstephens on twitter here.